Somehow I had made it decades through life and across the United States and never ridden on a train. I have been on a lot of subways and the like, but not a good old-fashioned railroad; and I imagine that 50 years from now, due to the cost of maintenance and the lack of need, we won’t be able to ride a good old-fashioned railroad. I’ve been writing a lot about the importance of railways in American history, and these huge machines are really something special, and definitely on their way to extinction. Knowing I was upset about missing out, my husband booked me a first class ticket on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad for my birthday. It may sound a little cheesy and touristy, but I love stuff like that, and he was excited too.
In the early 1880s the railroad finally reached the mountain town of Asheville, NC, decades after it was in other Southern cities. Lack of funding, difficult terrain, and the Civil War all played a part in delaying the laying of lines. Before the railroad people could visit the mountains via stagecoach, traveling mud and plank roads from Greenville, South Carolina or Greeneville, TN, both taking a full day. After the railroad New York City was just 20 hours away – opening a whole new world for locals and visitors.
I imagine that the mountains looked a little bit more breathtaking when they weren’t as easy to get to – when you couldn’t just hop in your own car and taking the interstate, like we did driving the hour and a half to Bryson City from Asheville. That wouldn’t have even been possible by car a hundred years ago.
Our train ride went from 10:30 am until 3 pm – with an hour layover in Nantahala at the outdoor center. It was slow, and beautiful. We had lunch, and heard some stories and some music, and our company was very pleasant. The scenery has changed since passenger trains actually ran through the area, including the addition of Fontana Lake and the rerouting of the train tracks due to the now under-water towns. But it was fun to almost step back into time and imagine when travel was slower, and the far reaches of the earth were just a little bit farther away than a 12 hour ride in an airplane.